Letter: Ono's cowardice on Furlong should end his honeymoon on campus

UBC's new president has finally made a controversial decision, and revealed that behind his cute music videos and bow ties is utter contempt for people working against racism and child abuse in Canada.

Santa Ono's unilateral decision to reinstate John Furlong as keynote speaker at a UBC fundraising event is all the worse for how unnecessary it was. 

It would have been one thing if Ono was under pressure to cancel Furlong's speech.

Apparently nobody realized at first how controversial inviting Furlong to campus would be. Once they realized that, the organizers cancelled his appearance last month. People make mistakes, they fix their mistakes, we move on.

Ono went out of his way to apologize to Furlong for the cancellation — but otherwise didn't need to involve himself at all.

Let's take a moment to clarify what Ono was involving himself in by laying out just what Furlong is accused of.

In 2012, eight First Nations students signed affidavits for a Georgia Straight reporter outlining physical and mental abuse by Furlong during his time as a physical education teacher at a residential school — the very kind of school UBC wants to be a leader in recognizing the awful legacy of.

One student said, “I was hit on the head all the time. I was hit with a ruler: a metre stick in the legs. I remember one day talking to another Native person in my language. I said, ‘What are you learning in school?’ John Furlong hit me for that. Those days, there was not too much learning. I remember John Furlong chased me home one day.”

Furlong denies all the allegations presented in the article.

The Georgia Straight article also said that Furlong, who organized the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, left out his time as a residential school teacher in all of his official biographies and in his autobiography.


Okay, now that we're caught up to speed on why some people didn't want Furlong speaking at UBC, let us return to our adorable new president's involvement in this sordid affair.

Following the athletic department's cancellation of Furlong's speech, everything was fine. Furlong accepted the cancellation. Ono had nothing to do with any of this, and was in the clear.

But instead of letting well enough be, Ono decided to re-invite Furlong after two weeks — again, a man accused by eight people of being horribly racist and beating them as children — after the athletics department cancelled his talk.

Why would he do that?

As a recent alumnus of UBC, that's what I want an answer to. Surely if Ono believed the eight First Nations students who had spoken to The Georgia Straight, he wouldn't have re-invited Furlong. 

After all, no president of a university aspiring to be one of the best in the world would want a racist child abuser raising funds for its sports teams.

So then, Ono must believe that the eight students who spoke to The Georgia Straight in 2012 are liars. In failing to believe them, Ono is making the same mistake that people in positions of authority across Canada made throughout the history of the residential school program where, for decades, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and abused in boarding schools meant to take away any shred of their cultural identity.

There is a small chance that Ono believes that Furlong abused those children but thinks his work supporting sports in Canada in the decades since absolves him of guilt. Or perhaps Ono simply believes that slighting a major figure in Canadian sports would hurt the university's status in the eyes of certain donors.

Whatever the case, Ono's aggressive cowardice in re-inviting Furlong to speak should end whatever honeymoon he received as a president who engaged nicely, if superficially, with students on social media and around campus (what a low bar we have for our leaders).

It is time for us to hold Ono accountable not only on his action in the case of Furlong, but on all the serious issues on campus: affordability, mental health, the quality of teaching and the priorities of the administration. 

If Ono is willing to ignore the concerns of human rights advocates concerned about Furlong speaking on campus, it suggests the policy he sets as president may not be as in line with what students believe as his slick, self-created brand make it seem.

Arno Rosenfeld is a former Ubyssey editor and a UBC alumnus.